Homeless people file lawsuit after sweep, claiming rights violated

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Two homeless people and homeless advocates filed a lawsuit against the City of Seattle and the Washington Department of Transportation for violating constitutional rights of people living outside by seizing and often throwing away their property, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington on Thursday.

The lawsuit claims that the city and state threw away the two homeless people’s property without adequate notice.

KIRO 7 News is reading through the 37-page lawsuit for a report on the news at 5 p.m. Watch on-air or here.

According to the ACLU, who is representing the homeless people in the lawsuit, property seized and thrown out included tents and sleeping bags needed to survive the cold.

“Imagine if government agents came to your home and carted away everything you own, without any warning and without telling you how to get back whatever they didn’t throw out,” said ACLU-WA Legal Director Emily Chiang. “For people living outdoors in Seattle, this horrifying scenario is too often a reality – and has been so for years.”

The Episcopal Diocese, who provides services to unhoused people, and Real Change, an organization which provided a weekly paper as a voice for low-income people, are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Brandie Osborn and Lisa Hooper, the homeless people at the center of the lawsuit, both fear losing everything they own, according to the ACLU.

Hooper told the ACLU she lost irreplaceable family photos and important legal paperwork in a sweep from DOT workers in 2015.

The city's temporary fix

Officially, the city’s authorized homeless camps are a temporary fix to remedy the local homeless crisis that has gotten worse during Mayor Ed Murray’s time in office. It is estimated that more than 2,000 people are unsheltered in Seattle on any given night.

The mayor’s long-term solution is called “Pathways Home.” It involves expanding 24-hour shelter services and re-focusing the city’s homeless solutions to an individual-based approach. The program is expected to take a couple years to set up.

In the meantime, however, the city has implemented a “bridging the gap” program, which includes the homeless camps, such as the recently authorized tent encampments.

New precedent for sleeping outside suggested 

Seattle council members introduced legislation last year that would change the city’s current practice of encampment sweeps. It came amid residents’ concerns about an ordinance drafted by the ACLU and Coalition on Homelessness that would set a precedent for people sleeping outside.

Council members Rob Johnson, Lisa Herbold, Mike O’Brien and Kshama Sawant said their legislation would allow for encampment clear-outs with conditions. Here are a few conditions:

  • Outdoor living spaces in locations deemed unsuitable or unsafe are to be cleared with 48 hours’ notice;
  • For outdoor living areas that are not deemed unsafe, unsuitable, or hazardous, residents will be cleared out only after being offered an adequate and accessible housing option with at least 30 days advance written notice;
  • Camping on sidewalks, rights of way, school grounds, private property, highway overpasses, among other unsuitable locations, would not be allowed.

The council voted to move the ordinance to committee for discussion. That committee has not taken any action since the discussion.

In a news release on the lawsuit, the ACLU wrote that homeless people’s property in a tent does not give it less constitutional protection than when it sits in a house. 

The lawsuit seeks a court order to stop the City and the Department of Transportation from seizing and destroying property that belongs to people living outside without adequate notice.

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